Emotional Intelligence — Emotional intelligence is a lofty term, and often the power in this set of skills gets lost in ambiguity. At its core, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others and use this information to foster better relationships and get better outcomes.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Rhonda Y. Williams.

Rhonda Y. Williams is a published author, international speaker, and executive coach. Her path from career and personal “devastation-to-emancipation” and matchless commitment to transformational leadership is an inspiring model of invincible optimism and resilience. Rhonda has invested years rigorously researching, testing, and honing her next-level programs and strategic solutions. Rhonda’s compassionate, results-focused expertise provides a powerful ascension blueprint for today’s leaders and executives. Her empathy and razor-sharp clarity helps construct a path “above the grind” and offers a success alternative to the overwhelm and self-sabotage plaguing modern leaders. Through her proprietary Above the Grind Leadership (ATG) solutions-suite, Rhonda enables organizations to create Modern Magnetic Cultures™, broadening and deepening the understanding of executive behavioral constructs, personal-organizational-team performance and fulfillment, and practical self-mastery for modern professionals.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

So much is happening currently. At Above the Grind Leadership, we are expanding our service offerings for the busy executive leaders we coach and serve to include short, consumable, and high-impact content. This type of content is a timely solution for companies wanting to expand access to relevant content for their leadership development processes. Additionally, we are focused on cross-border penetration as we increase our support for leaders globally. Whether in the U.S., Middle East, or Nigeria, at its core, leadership is leadership.

On a personal note, I must say that my world has changed since we added the newest member to our family. Honey is a Goldendoodle, and right now, she’s just over 12 weeks. It’s been a while since I’ve had a little one in the house, so you can imagine how things have changed for us.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

As a young nurse, I had the great fortune of having an extraordinary leader. She had all the characteristics that make leaders great. She was personable, funny, straightforward, and solution-focused. The situation never seemed to be too big for her. Whatever we were facing, she simply approached it like it was “the next thing.” I was amazed at her ability to get to the heart of the matter without animosity.

What I learned from her stayed with me as ail moved into my leadership and executive roles. She was bold and incredibly competent. But what was most impressive was the way she connected with people. Something that did not come naturally to me.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

I am a firm believer that in every failure lies a lesson. Sometimes it is hidden and requires more work to get to it, but it is always there. One of my favorite quotes is Nelson Mandela’s, “I never lose. I win or I learn.”

One of my biggest mistakes as a leader was believing the most important thing was putting my head down, focusing on the work, and making decisions. As an introverted leader, it is a very comfortable place to be, and I can easily slip into this space.

On one occasion, as a Nurse Executive, we had an important decision to make about one of our staff break areas. I evaluated the problem and came up with a solution. To my surprise, when I shared the solution with the team, there was significant resistance. I was taken aback. It made perfect sense to me.

This error was one of my first lessons in understanding the importance of inclusive leadership. My mistake was not bringing other voices and perspectives into the decision-making process. One of the reasons this was a big mistake was that I was new in my position. The early stages of settling in as a leader include the all-important stage of building trust. My failure to include the team damaged trust, and I had to work hard to rebuild that trust. I started by admitting my mistake, putting the project on hold, and gathering additional feedback.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

As I’ve grown and learned through my experiences, my definition of leadership has changed. In the past, I was highly focused on what I got done, how much I got done, and how quickly I got it done. My guiding belief was that as a leader, this was what mattered most. At the time, my definition of leadership was formed by external factors such as expectations and what I saw other “good” leaders doing.

Over the years, I realized that my definition of leadership needed to be based on my core values and principles. I shifted focus from the “what” to the “how.” This shift is nuanced because it is not that the “what” is not important. However, I began to see the “what” as a qualitative byproduct of the “how.”

The “how” ensured that I constantly evaluated what voices I included in the conversation, how I communicated, and how I supported and cared for the team. When I was focused on these elements, the “what” always seemed to take care of itself.

Something magical happened as I made this shift in how I approach leadership. I realized I could extend this same courtesy to myself. It allowed me to be kinder to myself and accept the same grace I extended to others. Frankly, it was a game-changer, and it has fueled my passionate commitment to developing a roadmap for modern leadership that helps leaders thrive, even in high-pressure environments.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

This one took me some time to integrate into my leadership fully. I am a person who values logic and competence. Through my years of experience, I realize that technical competence is only one part of what makes a successful employee, colleague, or leader. When evaluating performance and setting expectations, I stopped overvaluing technical competence.

Technical competence is essential. However, I have worked with employees and other leaders who were miserable to be around and poisoned the team culture. Why were they allowed to stay? Because somewhere along the line, we believed their technical skill was worth overlooking the damage they were doing to the team.

I recall having a performance conversation with a nurse with a solid clinical skillset. She was disruptive, and the unit felt like it was in chaos each shift she worked. During the conversation, as we spoke about her impact on the team, she responded, “I’m a very good nurse.” At that moment, I realized that my definition of a “good nurse” or a “good employee” had changed. It was my responsibility to reset expectations for the team.

As a leader, it is easy to overvalue technical competence. When we do, we undervalue critical social skills such as effective communication, emotional intelligence, empathy, influence, and more. These essential characteristics must be present to create a collaborative and positive team culture.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

As a leader, being the most constant voice in the room is easy. It comes naturally. One way I have learned to elevate and incorporate the voices of others is by asking more questions. Even when I believe I know the answer, I still ask questions.

Asking effective questions is a combination of both skill and art. The skill of asking questions is developing a thoughtful approach to guide the direction of the conversation and elicit meaningful information. The art ensures we are using our tone and body language to create space for open, honest dialog. Leadership Above the Grind Mentoring and Coaching Academy includes virtual lessons for leveraging curiosity and communication.

Asking more questions is not without its challenges. Not only are tone and body language important, but using the right questions is essential. Some questions can raise defensiveness or feel challenging. Leaders who ask more questions will want to pay close attention to the feedback they receive to gauge how effective their questioning skills are.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

As proud leaders, we value what has brought us success in the past. There is a sense of comfort in sticking with what has worked for us. Yet, today’s modern workplace is filled with dynamic challenges that are rapidly evolving. Leaders best positioned to lead their teams into the future are those who are willing to grow and change along with the workforce.

One recommendation is to embrace a growth mindset. Carol Dweck coined the term growth mindset, which refers to the belief that skills and talents can be expanded and that nothing is fixed. This means we can choose to stretch beyond our current way of thinking. It is not as easy as it sounds, and leaders need to have expectations of growth set at the organizational and individual levels.

There are many ways leaders can do this. The most common is books and audio. Conferences and training workshops are great resources. Coaching can help leaders amplify self-awareness and pursue change based on results. Additionally, leadership masterminds and networking groups are a great way for leaders to expose themselves to different thoughts and ideas.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

Being a new leader can be challenging for many reasons. One strategy I would recommend that will serve emerging leaders today and forever forward is listening. We all have great ideas. Contrary to popular opinion, the role of a leader is not to make all the decisions. The role of a leader is to get the best out of their team by listening, respecting, and empowering them. When leaders begin to do less talking and more listening, we see an incredible rise in commitment and engagement. As a bonus, the leader’s job gets easier when their people are capable, competent, and willing to handle day-to-day challenges.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Flexibility — With the rapidly changing workplace landscape, leaders face difficult decisions. Leaders prepared for the modern workforce will employ flexibility in their leadership approach. A recent example of how flexible leadership can impact the workplace is Elon Musk’s belief that employees should be “all in” and work as much as possible to advance their careers with Twitter.

Musk issued an ultimatum to employees. “Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore,” Musk wrote in the memo. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”

This approach led to a significant number of employees who declined to be a part of Twitter 2.0 and handed in their resignations. It is not to imply his approach was wrong. Every leader can decide that for themselves. I view these public situations as case studies with the intent of learning. From my perspective, the question is, could a different approach have resulted in a more positive outcome?

2. Empathy — A recent study by Catalyst found 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged, compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy. Additionally, in 2021, employee engagement in the U.S. declined for the first time in over a decade, dropping from 36% of employees being “engaged” to 34% in 2021. With the clear connection between empathy and engagement, leaders are well served to understand their strengths and weaknesses in using empathy.

During the height of the pandemic, I spoke with a team of employees who were frustrated with their leaders. Their complaint was they were tired and felt many team members were getting sick because of the workload. On one occasion, an employee said she tried to call in because she didn’t feel well. Her manager told her she couldn’t call in. Her manager said they were already short-staffed, and she would risk her job if she did not come to work. The employee said she lost all respect for the leader and felt like she was just another number and her manager didn’t care about her.

Empathy helps us build relationships and improve communication. Without it, a void is left that is not easily filled by a paycheck.

3. Confidence — An underrated trait essential for effective leaders is confidence. Confidence is one of the most significant factors driving behavior. When leaders are not confident, they micromanage, hoard information, operate in self-preservation mode, and damage trust. Confident leaders inspire high-performing, resilient teams by including other opinions, encouraging calculated risk and innovation, and adopting a fail-forward attitude.

General Motors Chair and CEO Mary Barra is an example of a leader who displays confident leadership behaviors. This was particularly evident in 2014 when G.M. was in the midst of a recall crisis. During that time, G.M. recalled 2.6 million vehicles. She openly discussed her leadership approach during the crisis. “We gathered a team of people, and we were guided by three principles,” Barra said. “We’re gonna do everything we can. We’re going to be transparent. We’re going to do everything we can to support the customer. And we’re gonna do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again … As I reflect now, (what I learned is that) you’ve got to do the right thing, even when it’s hard.”

Confident leaders do not have to be the loudest voice in the room. They have the commitment and fortitude to do what needs to be done, even when it is not the easiest or most profitable path.

4. Emotional Intelligence — Emotional intelligence is a lofty term, and often the power in this set of skills gets lost in ambiguity. At its core, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others and use this information to foster better relationships and get better outcomes.

For example, a company has decided to end its hybrid work policy and requires everyone to return to the office. The company executives have decided that productivity suffers because people are not building relationships and collaborating in-office. After announcing the change, morale plummets, and resignations increase.

An emotionally intelligent organization may be leaning toward ending hybrid policies. But before deciding, they employ processes to gather feedback and tune into the team’s emotions around this critical change. Once they understand the situation and potential ramifications of the decision, they employ empathy in communicating the final decisions. Caring for people shows in the execution of the policy change, and lines of communication and support remain open as they alter course.

Emotional intelligence doesn’t mean you have to make everyone happy. However, we take a more humanized approach when leveraging emotional intelligence skills, even with difficult decisions.

5. Self-Care — As a busy healthcare executive, I was not very focused on caring for myself. In fact, I was focused on caring for everyone else except myself. I followed what I saw from my mentors and role models in healthcare. After a series of professional and personal crisis moments, I decided the model of working what felt like 24/7 was unsustainable. To pivot, I had to change my vision of a great leader.

Today, great leaders are leaders who are competent technically and professionally and who also overtly care for themselves and others. This is a critical point. It is not enough to take care of yourself quietly. Today’s leaders need to model self-care. Others must see that it is okay not to respond to texts and emails all weekend and while on vacation. They need to see their leaders taking time off. This is the ultimate form of walking the talk.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

What a great quote. In the past, I reacted my way through my days and weeks. Today, I set intentions for each day. I start the day with meditation and visualization. I focus on what I want to do and how I want to be. It allows me to focus on showing up authentically, mindfully, and peacefully.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

I strive to inspire leaders to create a leadership life they love. Leadership should not be synonymous with struggle and sacrifice. Sometimes, those things are necessary, but they should be the exception and not the rule. I firmly believe that when leaders focus on caring for themselves and others, they can show up powerfully as a positive force and influence. When they do, they are more productive and get better results while building a resilient, empowered team.

I am committed to helping leaders modernize their leadership approach. We help leaders re-focus on the Six Cs of Modern Leadership. Clarity, character, competence, confidence, communication, compassion, and conviction are all essential elements for creating a leadership life you love while building a rockstar team. This is essential for leaders to thrive in today’s high-pressure environments.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

I’d love to connect with your readers! They can email me directly at [email protected].

They can visit our website at http://ATGLeadership.com or follow me on LinkedIn here: http://www.linkedin.com/in/rhondaywilliams.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!